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Baseball: Just rolling along – Cajuns crush Jags to reach SBC finals

Tim Buckley, Daily Advertiser, May 26, 2013

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Sometimes – not necessarily often, but on occasion – so much simultaneously goes oh-so-right.

Such seems to be the case lately for the UL baseball team, which was vaulted into today’s 1 p.m. championship game of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament by a second complete game in as many days for a second straight win over No. 24 South Alabama.

UL advanced with a 12-2 win over South Alabama, avoiding an if-necessary game vs. USA on Saturday night in the eight-team, double-elimination tournament by ending things in seven innings on the tourney’s 10-run mercy rule.

“If I could bottle this up and time it … I’d be on an island somewhere in The Bahamas, because I’d be the richest man in the world,” said Ragin’ Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux, whose club – just 23-30 a season go – improved to 41-17 and now is within one win of its first Sun Belt tourney title since 1998.

“This is a good team of horses. They remind me a lot of the Omaha team (UL’s last, and only, to go the College World Series, in 2000). We really didn’t coach them; we kind of held onto them. And this is kind of what you have to do with this team. … That’s a good sign.

“They’re learning to channel their energy a lot better,” Robichaux added, “and then putting it out onto the field inning-by-inning.”

They’re getting things done on the mound, too.

The Cajuns got a six-strikeout, four-hitter from Ryan Wilson on Saturday, one day after they got a complete-game nine-hitter from No. 1 starter Austin Robichaux in a 9-2 winner’s-bracket victory over South Alabama.

“When you get all those runs,” said Wilson, UL’s sometimes-starter, sometimes-reliever, “you can challenge, throw pitches right down the middle, and just let your defense work for you.”

The No. 3 seed Cajuns – winners of seven in a row, their longest winning streak of the season – today will face No. 4 seed Florida Atlantic, which has won 10 straight after eliminating Arkansas State with a 5-4 victory in Saturday’s early game.

Neither UL nor FAU has lost yet in the five-team tournament, but today’s championship is a single winner-takes-all game.

Right-fielder Dex Kjerstad was 3-for-4 with one RBI and centerfielder Seth Harrison delivered two more RBIs on Saturday with a two-run homer for UL, which collected 12 hits.

Starter Jacob Noble (5-3) lasted just 2.0 innings and took the loss for South Alabama, which fell to 42-18 but seems bound for an NCAA Regional along with UL, tourney No. 1 seed Troy and Florida Atlantic.

“We’re just sticking with our approach, just coming one after one another, one through nine,” said Kjertsad, the Cajuns’ leadoff hitter. “Our lineup’s solid, and we’ve taken down a lot of guys doing that.”

UL opened in the top of the first with the homer to left-center by Harrison, his ninth of the year.

It was 70th home run this season by the Cajuns, who went into the tourney leading the country in homers with 66.

Seventy is the most they’ve had 2007.

The Cajuns picked up two more in the second, when Ryan Leonards walked, Michael Strentz delivered his 22nd double of the season, Blake Trahan scored Leonards with a sacrifice fly and Strentz came across on Chase Compton’s squeeze bunt to make it 4-0.

In the top of the fourth Compton singled up the middle to score Trahan, who singled his way on, stole second and advanced to third with a throwing error on the steal.

Compton later scored from third when Jace Conrad hit into a double play, putting the Cajuns up 6-0.

South Alabama scored two in the bottom of the fourth, when Nick Zaharion tripled in Jordan Patterson and eventually scored himself.

But UL got both back in the top of the fifth, when Strentz singled in Caleb Adams, who had singled himself, and Trahan doubled in Strentz from third.

But the Cajuns didn’t stop there, as Compton doubled in Trahan to finish the three-run inning and give UL a seven-run lead at 9-2.

“Creating momentum – it’s a big thing,” Kjerstad said.

“And getting those three-run, four-run innings – I think we’ve had a few seven-, eight-run innings this year – is just how we work together.”

UL added its last two in the top of the seventh on a bases-loaded sacrifice to right by Kjerstad that scored Strentz with his third run of the game and a sacrifice fly to left by Conrad that scored Trahan with his third run.

That 10-run lead set things up for UL, which earlier got two nifty defensive plays at short by true-freshman Trahan, to end things early in the seventh.

Wilson did that by getting Nolan Earley to fly out, striking out Dustin Dalken swinging and getting Robby Campbell to ground out to first.

Cajuns first baseman Compton made a diving play to secure Campbell’s grounder, then flipped the ball to Wilson for the final out despite coming down hard on his shoulder.

“It was good to see (Wilson) come out and pitch a game like and save the bullpen,” Kjerstad said. “He did a heckuva job.

“That’s huge,” Kjerstad added. “Going into a Regional, we’ll have some fresh arms, and just keep swinging it like we have been, and see what happens.”

Compton started Saturday in part because usual starting left-fielder Dylan Butler, Tony Robichaux said, is “down a little bit,” so the Cajuns are trying to “get him (Butler) his rest now for the Regionals.”

As a result, sometimes-second baseman Leonards started in left, Conrad moved from first to second and Compton got the nod at first.

“That’s the whole thing about this team,” Robichaux said, “is every time we’ve got a little hole in the boat they plug it up so we can keep sailing.”

LAGNIAPPE: Robichaux said he intends to give Kody Smith (1-2, 5.15 ERA) his first start of the tourney today, but he plans to turn to bullpen often for matchups if needed. Robichaux had said before the tourney started that he didn’t plan to start anyone twice, since a Regional bid seemed secure and he wanted to save his top arms for then. Regional invites go out Monday. … UL will be the home team for Sunday’s game vs. FAU. … Robichaux said he thought Compton “will be fine” after banging his shoulder on the ground